Admission criteria to Harvard University in 1869 included command of Latin subjunctive, facility with cube roots and recall of major river basins and the history of Pharsalia — apparently a province of ancient Greece. The rigid, well-defined admission procedures of the 19th-century have given way to a more flexible contemporary framework for evaluation that allows consideration of non-academic ability, socioeconomic background and interpersonal skills. The Alumni Interview Pilot Program purports to offer Stanford Admission a window into these intangible qualities and enhance its ability to holistically appraise applicants. However, on balance the program will be marginally effective at best, discriminatory at worst and probably not worth the effort to fully implement.
An applicant’s file — which includes test scores, transcripts, essays and recommendations — already contains a wealth of academic and non-academic information. The interview allegedly serves two unique purposes. First, it allows an interviewer to confirm or deny the personality traits and academic background cited in the paper materials. Given the proliferation of essay prep resources and the positive uniformity of recommendations, the interview can be a valuable tool to test whether an applicant actually possesses a particular trait — say “poise” — cited by a recommender or a personal statement. This frees admission officers from having to approach all encomia in paper materials with a grain of salt; the reviewer will know if the materials are corroborated or not.
Second, the interview delivers insight into the applicant’s “intangibles” over and above that cited in the paper materials. This seems dubious prima facie. Consider a clear example of when the interview is supposed to generate additional information to the paper materials: a candidate is charming in the interview and demonstrates interpersonal skills that will serve him well in student leadership. The interviewer duly reports this to the admission officer, and the datum is taken into account. However, this information on the applicant’s interpersonal skills could just as easily have come from a teacher recommendation. The added credibility of the unbiased interviewer’s word does not support the argument that the interview enables better identification of the applicant’s intangibles than do the paper materials. Rather, this second advantage of the interview appears to collapse into the first advantage, namely that interviews simply reinforce or undermine the paper materials.
The threshold question for justifying alumni interviews is therefore whether the ability of interviews to confirm/disconfirm claims made in the paper materials outweighs the disadvantages of enacting such a program. The answer is likely no, because although paper materials may be inaccurate, interview feedback is similarly dubious. Although all alumni interviewers undergo the same training, their preparation is less rigorous than that of an admission officer and their reports therefore appropriately discounted. Moreover, the variability of interview circumstances and statistically guaranteed poor performances further devalues the information gleaned from an interview. Shawn Abbott, former director of admission, noted last June in the Examiner that admission officers rarely changed their decisions based on interview feedback.
That anecdotal evidence for the redundancy of alumni interviews is borne out in a 1991 empirical study by Comila Shahani, which concluded that alumni interviews do not add incremental predictive value to paper materials using admission outcome or freshman GPA regressors. Therefore, alumni interviews do not predict future academic performance and are redundant to admission decisions even given their ostensibly unique access to applicant intangibles.
Interviews also have the potential to disadvantage applicants from poor socioeconomic and ethnic minority backgrounds. Christian Connell’s research demonstrates that the social skills of high school graduates from those communities lag behind those of their middle and upper class counterparts due in part to insufficient adult interaction. Regardless of correction protocols that the admissions office may try to build into alumni training, interviewers will either overcompensate or disadvantage underprivileged applicants, in both cases yielding tainted information.
Facilitating an alumni-interviewing network capable of serving over 30,000 applicants will be a monumental task. Indeed, even taking into account the potential benefit of energizing the alumni community, the costly endeavor is at most a wash. The benefits of obtaining unreliable data that only serve to test the veracity of claims made in paper materials are meager, while the program has potentially damaging effects to Stanford’s diversity promotion efforts. Therefore, this Board urges the Admission Office to reconsider its alumni interview program.